How ticket quotas negatively impact police morale and public trust

Imposing ticket quotas on your officers to measure performance is an easy way to supervise, but it’s not the most effective


Traffic enforcement is one of the highest priority objectives of any police agency and the most common daily function of the uniformed officer. Traffic enforcement is necessary to analyze traffic patterns and enforce traffic laws for the prevention of traffic problems and vehicular accidents.

Most officers don’t enjoy traffic enforcement. It’s been my experience that officers don’t want to write tickets just to meet a quota (if a quota exists). Usually, officers only write traffic violations when they observe an obvious infraction. They likely do not enjoy targeting areas for traffic enforcement or writing a certain amount of tickets to satisfy a supervisor. There are plenty of traffic enforcement minded officers in our ranks to keep drivers honest, but many patrol officers feel traffic enforcement isn’t their priority.

This disparity in policing philosophy can often place leadership in difficult positions and often leads to some form of ticket quotas. Too often leadership simply places a number on an officer’s monthly performance and requires a certain number of violations to meet the minimum performance goal. This is a lazy way to require officers to meet their objectives. It also has the potential to be unethical and generate bad public relations.

I recently read an article about a sergeant who challenged his officers to compete for ticket production for a day off. This challenge was handwritten. A news agency got ahold of this note. This was a public relations nightmare for the chief and it created some public distrust. When this occurs, a complete breakdown in leadership develops.

Many of us have experienced sitting in the sergeant’s or lieutenant’s office during a performance evaluation and receiving a dissertation about ticket production. If you’re like me, you fight to stay focused on the conversation as your mind wanders while your supervisor’s bloviating lulls you to sleep. The conclusion of this lost moment in time typically ends with some magic number of total traffic tickets that should be issued for the month to keep you off the hot seat in the future.

During my patrol days, I didn’t care for traffic enforcement – when I wrote a violation to a motorist it was usually well deserved. I was fortunate enough to work for an agency that had a patrol bureau and traffic enforcement bureau. Therefore, the emphasis on traffic enforcement wasn’t as significant within the patrol bureau as it was within the traffic bureau. However, officers were still expected to produce traffic violations. This type of situation is where good leaders excel and weak leaders fail. The weak sergeant would have to impose quotas on his officers and imply some type of sanctions if they weren’t met. This technique may be effective on some officers, but it is bad for morale. Ticket quotas can place your agency in a precarious situation and diminish your department’s reputation and trust with its citizens.

The fact is, however, that aggressive traffic enforcement can be effective and producing large numbers of citations for traffic violations may be justified. A study by the NCBI in partnership with the City of Fresno, California tracked the results from a vigorous traffic enforcement program that included an increase in traffic patrol officers. The study utilized data from a 12-month period before the increased traffic patrol and for a period of 12 months during the increased traffic patrol.

The traffic officers significantly increased their issued violations to motorists during this period with the intent to measure if there were any changes in motor vehicle accidents from the increased ticket production. The results were not surprising – there were significant decreases in crashes, collisions, injuries and fatalities. Hospitals saw significant decreases in patients with injuries, as well as a decrease in length of hospital stay for motor vehicle crash victims and a decrease in hospital charges to crash victims.

For those officers with the traffic enforcement personality, the aforementioned study is probably motivating to you, but let’s get back to the officers who could care less about traffic violations.

Placing a monthly ticket quota on an officer is counterproductive and it’s usually done because the leadership doesn’t have the ability to inspire their officers to be productive.

Strong leadership skills are often an inherent personality trait, however, they can also be learned. I have had success when training leadership skills to some degree, but personal communication skills and egos can ruin a leader.

A strong leader gains respect by placing an officer’s welfare before his or her own. A strong leader listens to officers and has the humility to change an opinion or position when an error is made. A strong leader has a reputation for being a good cop and a leader before getting promoted.

This type of leader can make any qualified cop productive without placing quotas on a monthly performance evaluation. The officer that respects direct supervisors will work to avoid placing him or her in a compromising position with the top brass. Thus, officers will produce without leaders having to place quotas on ticket production and threatening sanctions.

Traffic enforcement is a vital component to maintain law and order and we all must do our share. Imposing traffic quotas on your officers to measure performance is an easy way to supervise, however, likely not the most effective. It’s a sign of lazy and ineffective leadership.

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